Taking education beyond the classroom

Nicole DiDomenico and friend Launch Slideshow with Audio

As Nicole DiDomenico goes about her life as Director of the Office of Volunteer Programs at Norwich University, the people of Pommern, Tanzania, are never far from her mind. In December, she traveled back to the tiny village to visit the people she came to know after a recent trip with the NU Visions Abroad program. She also went to personally deliver a check for more than a thousand dollars, which had been raised on campus.

"That's a lot of money when you consider the average annual income in Pommern is about $250 U.S. dollars," she said.

To thank her for the donation, village elders gave her a live chicken. Not exactly what she was expecting, but then you never know what to expect when you commit to helping others. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of Americans who volunteer has grown significantly in the last few years, and DiDomenico thinks she may know the reason for the interest. She knows from experience that volunteering can change lives. Serving others has changed her life, and she's seen it change the lives of many others, as well.

Part of the vision of Norwich University is to have students, "dedicated to knowledge, mutual respect, creativity and service." One of the ways the university accomplishes this is through service learning and volunteering opportunities that advance education beyond the classroom.

In keeping with the tradition of service at the University, Norwich students, staff and faculty engage in a variety of activities that meet real community needs. DiDomenico organizes many of these programs. She is involved in everything from collecting food for the Vermont Food Bank, to coordinating Habitat for Humanity programs.

"Some of my friends think I'm some sort of a saint or something, but I know the truth," she said. "I get as much, if not more, out of what I'm doing than anyone else. In this country, we have a lot of artificial communities like Internet chat rooms and support groups, because we all want to belong. Volunteer service gives you that sense of belonging," DiDominico said, "and you can't buy that."

"The advantages of volunteering are that you learn about yourself. You learn how you react to different situations and what kind of person you are," DiDomenico said. "Are you going to buckle under pressure when you are tested and pushed beyond your comfort zone? You have to adapt to another person's way of life and accept their differences. This growth and development will eventually convince you that there's not much you can't do," she added.

DiDomenico came to Norwich in 2002 after completing a Master's in Teaching with a concentration in Service Learning at Plattsburgh State University. One of the things she likes most about her job is organizing programs some students have called, "life-changing."

She created the NU Visions Abroad program that gives Norwich students, faculty and staff an opportunity to engage in meaningful service overseas. The program, and a number of other study abroad opportunities, enables another vital piece of the University's vision to be realized. Specifically, that Norwich University be, "a learning community, American in character yet global in perspective."

Last May, an NU Visions Abroad team traveled to a small village called Pommern, in Tanzania, located in East Africa. "I was always drawn to African culture and music," DiDomenico said, "so when the students choose to go to Tanzania, I was very excited."

"It was an amazing trip," she recalled. "Our whole team connected to the community. If you can imagine 12 of us standing on a landing with 700 students singing to us, this magnificent roar, and in the first three notes my eyes welled up. I looked over at some of the other students, and the wrestling champion and the Marine were both choking up," she recalls. "Knowing that I helped to coordinate that was extremely rewarding."

This year's NU Visions Abroad trip should offer more people a life-changing experience. A group is preparing to travel to Hue, Vietnam, this summer, and work in schools and orphanages to address post-conflict challenges there. The group will team up with Clear Path International and focus their efforts on helping the many people in the region who have been affected by abandoned landmines.

In recalling her time with the people of Pommern, DiDomenico smiles at the memory. "My pet project right now is to photograph some of the children there. I want to sell their portraits to raise money and help them with their educational costs," she said. "Everywhere you go there, they're walking behind you singing and praising you as a gift from god … it's surreal. These people and their stories … they really stick with you."